Fatal accident or military cover-up? Trauma of a man's death in 1968 sparks his family's search for answers
Learning the truth about our past may heal future generations.
One night, I was scrolling through Twitter, when a startling tweet appeared. "I'm sorry if this floods your feed, but hopefully you'll find it somewhat entertaining. My grandfather was murdered and it's unsolved."
Thus began an unbelievable thread by Bernie Langille, a man seeking help to solve the half-century mystery around his grandfather's suspicious death. Bernie never met his grandfather (and namesake) who died 15 years before he was born — and yet the death appeared to be keeping three generations of his family obsessed with finding out if the military or government were responsible.
As a documentary director, I was intrigued, and spent the next six years putting together the story that eventually became the film Bernie Langille Wants To Know What Happened To Bernie Langille.
The story Langille has been told since childhood goes: On a snowy evening in 1968, Cpl. Bernard Langille left the military home he shared with his wife Annie and their three sons on Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in Oromocto, N.B., to drive friends home. In the middle of the night, Annie woke up to find her husband in bed beside her, lying in a pool of his own blood. Blood was also found at the bottom of the home's basement stairs.
Langille was taken to the Oromocto hospital, and, from there, a number of truly strange events unfolded. There was a five-hour delay in ordering an air evacuation for the critically injured corporal, which was caused by medical personnel being away on lunch. There was also an assault on the semi-conscious patient by a military doctor, who, Bernie was told, was heard saying, "You are going to die today, Langille." Then, finally, there was a train accident involving the ambulance transporting Langille to the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax, where he died after an unsuccessful surgery to save him.
A short-lived investigation into the incident took place, but, in the end, the military board of inquiry ruled that the death was the cause of a "no fault fall down the stairs." Case closed, as far as CFB Gagetown was concerned — but the case remained open for the grieving Langille family. Too many odd things had happened; the family was convinced their loved one must have been murdered in a military cover up.
In the aftermath of the death, the Langille family split apart. Some family members battled addiction. Less than a year after the event, at the age of 14, Bernie's father left home.
Bernie reflected that the 50-plus-year-old incident "took a part of my father," leaving him struggling to understand the raw anger his father expressed whenever the topic of Cpl. Langille's unresolved death came up.
The cost of intergenerational trauma
Intergenerational trauma explains the psychological and physiological effects of trauma that are passed down from the person or people who initially experience the trauma to ensuing generations. This can happen to an entire culture, as is the case with Indigenous descendents of residential school survivors in Canada, for example. It can also happen in single family units. Many people's family histories contain traumatic events. In some cases, we are aware of their present-day effect on us — and, in many ways, we are not.
In an experiment at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University, neurobiology researchers subjected mice to a mild electric shock in conjunction with the smell of cherry blossom, causing a trauma response every time the mice were exposed to the odour. The researchers then discovered changes in the sperm of the male mice who were subjected to the shock. They believe this is how the fear response was passed down to subsequent generations, who demonstrated the same reaction to the smell of cherry blossom though none of the offspring had been exposed to the electric shock. In other words, the specific fear of the scent of cherry blossom was inherited.
However, lest we despair that there is no escape from intergenerational trauma, there is a glimmer of hope. And it may lie in one of our strongest human traits: our ability to change and adapt.
When I spoke with Dr. Brian Diaz, one of the researchers who conducted the cherry blossom experiment, he told me the team also conducted additional testing in which they repeatedly exposed the initial generation of mice to the cherry blossom scent without receiving a foot shock. They discovered that, though the mice didn't forget the trauma link, new associations were formed now that the odour was no longer paired with a foot shock. Essentially, the mice underwent a form of exposure therapy, which involves repeatedly exposing the target patient to the source of their anxiety or phobia, but without putting them in any danger.
As the old saying goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Conversely, those who become aware of their history potentially have a chance to change the future. This is the crossroad that Bernie Langille finds himself at in our film. As he uncovers the truth about how the unresolved death of his grandfather has affected his family, Bernie is also awaiting the birth of his first child. Will he pass down to his daughter the same story of trauma he has grown up with? Or will he begin a new family narrative of resilience? It's a choice that might be food for thought for many of us.
Jackie Torrens is the director of Bernie Langille Wants to Know What Happened To Bernie Langille.